Month: September 2011

Can we really listen to each other?


This morning I was reading an article about communication and why we are all so bad about it. It didn’t really say anything world shatteringly new, but it did talk about how we are all so busy following our own agendas that we often simply don’t hear what others are “saying” to us. There was an example of a girl in the street who reacted very badly and aggressively to a man who had spoken to her. This was probably her fear, or an ingrained message that you don’t speak to srangers in the street, but the fact is that the man had simply asked her the time because his watch had broken. Sometimes it would be nice to stop listening to the screenplay in our heads and simply listen and see what is happening around us.

With this thought in mind, later in the afternoon, I took a plane to Cologne. I was flying from Verona and my fellow passenger was Italian. He had his ipad with him, and as we were about to take off the usual message was broadcast about switching off electronic equipment until the “fasten your seatbelt signs” are switched off. The message came in German and English and I was about to get irritated as the man sitting next to me ignored it. (At least that is what the screenplay in my head told me he was doing.) I was about to tell him to switch it off, terrified that his ipad might mean that our plane would plunge from the skies ( and we hadn’t even taken off), but I decided that this wasn’t my job, and he wasn’t really looking at it anyway, but I couldn’t help but feel a sliver of irritation in any case.

A few minutes later a flight attendant appeared with coffee and snacks, and that was when I discovered that my fellow passenger did not speak English or German, and he later told me that he wasn’t used to flying, so he had not understood any of the pre take off talk. I helped him by interpreting between him and the flight attendant, and we all proceeded happily towards Cologne despite his ipad episode. It just made me realise though, how much of an “inner screenplay” I carry around with me, and how we all make assumptions about other people’s behaviour, without having all the information to do so properly. I know it’s only natural, and none of us are perfect but if we ar really going to understand each other, perhaps we could learn to stop, take a deep breath and observe the situation before jumping in with both left feet!


Well, it is only indirectly connected to language learning, in the strict sense, but if we are interested in helping our learners communicate, then we have to be aware of all kinds of things that go beyond getting the Present Perfect” right (a tall order for many, in any case). Communication is a loaded business for most of us with all sorts of elements to it that go far beyond the transactional. One example of this is a comment that recently appead on one of my Facebook posts. Facebook, as we all know, is where we like to show off, among other things, and I had been showing off about a conference I was attending and a colleague of mine wrote: “what conference is that then? Why don’t I know about it?” This could have been interpreted as a request for information and the answer would have been to tell him about the conference, possibly reminding him at the same time that I had sent an email to everyone telling them about it earlier in the year. I know this person though and I was pretty sure that behind this was a feeling of exclusion, so I commented something along the lines of “Oh, you know, it’s the Aiclu conference I mentioned a while back. Pity you didn’t make it, you’ll have to come to the next one.” in this way I was responding on a transactional level but also reassuring my friend that he wasn’t being excluded and that, in fact, it woupd have been nice if he had been there too.

Facebook comments, of course, are not spoken discourse, so this is not a matter of “listening” in the strict sense, but listening leads to response in the same way as reading comments on social networks can, and we often read these comments and react so quickly that this is, in fact, a new hybrid way of communicating, somewhere between writing and speaking. What is noticeable, however, if youl ook at comments between people on Facebook, who know each other, but who you do not know (or you only know one of them) the exchanges can at times be difficult for an outsider to follow, precisely because so much of the communication involved is linked to the non verbal (intentions, feelings, past history, shared knowledge and assumptions etc.) All these things are part of successful language use and successful communication, and yet we are often not aware of them.


So, there is an awful lot going on in discourse, and thr intention behind what we say is often just as, if not more important than the words themselves. To help our students we need to basically raise their awareness of:
1) the screenplay in their minds;
2) the different intentions people have when they speak (or write).

One exercise is to look at different messages, like the one from my colleague, or even potentially provocative or misleading ones. (I’m still thinking about these and would be really gratefu
For any suggestions 🙂 ), and ask students to consider how to answer them, by looking at these three questions:
1) What is the message asking?
2) What is the intention behind the message?
3) what is an appropriate way to respond?

It can be very interesting to see the suggestions different groups give, and at the same time raise awareness of another element to communication which goes beyond mere accuracy.


Directing your thoughts in a Multi- tasking World

Taking a break

Two days in the mountains have done wonders for me. I’m beginning to feel my thoughts, worries and emotions calming down, concentration improving as well as an improvement in my general attitude towards life. What I did notice, though, was that it does take me two days at least to switch off from my worry channel, the impulse to answer every email immediately and to solve everything. Today I even forgot to switch my phone on for a few hours :-).
One exercise to clear your mind
I have written before about mindfulness, and it is something that, I think, you have to nurture. This does not necessarily mean meditating in the pure sense, although I would strongly recommend it too. Here is a simple exercise that you can do anywhere that will help to slow down the crazy dance of the “out of control” mind:
1. Take the time to stop and look around you;
2. Notice the small life moments, the waiter across the road opening the sunshades over tables, or the wedding which is taking place in he square, and the tourists taking photos;
3. Notice your perceptions: the feel of the rain on your skin or the smell of the baker’s across the road, as well as the sounds of voices, that are shouting in the street, music or radio playing in shops; just notice them without irritation or pleasure, suspending judgment or labelling them (giving things names like : music, drunk in the street, car etc.) and simply notice these perceptions, and the effect they have on you. Is a sound loud, where is it coming from? Behind your head, through your left ear more strongly? How do you react to the sound? Etc. Etc.
This is a simple exercise that you can do at any time, anywhere, and it does wonders for slowing your thoughts down, clearing your mind and improving your ability to concentrate and think about one thing at a time.
Resisting the Siren Song of the Internet
Mindfully concentrating on one thing at a time is a skill which is not very popular in our world of multitasking but it is one that I am convinced we, as educators, (or aducators as I like to consider our role in the 21 st Century) could be teaching our learners. We all know how easy it is to be distracted on Google, one click leading so easily to another until we have wasted half an hour, and are miles away from what we were originally looking for. Here is an example:
I went online to look for a hotel in Glasgow. This is what happened:
1. My antivirus told me that it needed to be updated, so I dealt with that;
2. I went onto Google and found the usual list of hotels on different booking sites;
3. As I was looking at one the was a beep as a meesage came into my email box, so I went to look at that;
4. It was from a student eho wanted me to approve her access to our class wiki;
5. I went onto the class wiki, approved her as a member and noticed that there was a message from another student;
6. I went to check that message and downloaded his homework onto my desktop…
And so on and so on. Half an hour had passed and I had not actually managed to look at hotels in Glasgow! Des this sound familiar?

Approaching your time online Mindfully

The mindful approach (which I am now trying to apply with varying deees of success, I must admit) is to decide what I’m going to do in advance, and this may well include ten minutes to “see what’s going on” or it may be to look up hotels in Glasgow. Goal setting even for is type of activity helps me to avoid wasting time, and getting stressed into the bargain.

These are precisely the type of skills that I think our learners need to be deveoping too, and what we could be teaching them, so that wasting time by minless multitasking can be avoided. They are simple skills but they do not perhaps come so naturally to us, and the call of the mouse is tempting and strong. Anyway, I’m finding it quite helpful and I thought you might too :-).

Flipping the classroom and the future of homework

Homework in a Digital Age

Last week’s evening eltchat was dedicated to homework and I tried, which is not always easy in 140 characters, to explain how I think homework is changing in the digital world. The idea came to me from Salman Kahn‘s maths videos that form the basis of his innovative Kahn Academy (see the video above).

Ingenious but simple: flipping the classroom

Like most ingenious ideas Khan’s idea was actually quite simple. He began making videos talking about maths and explaining ideas, which he posted on YouTube to help his cousins. As he says, they actually preferred the “video version” of their cousin to the original! The reason being that they could watch the videos as many times as they wanted and were not overawed by having a clever, demanding “teacher” in front of them. There is also the advantage of not having classroom rivalry either when you watch a video at home. Later on maths teachers began to use these videos asking their students to watch the videos at home before class, so that they could spend more time in class experimenting with maths problems and helping the learners with the actual problems they were having in solving them etc. This is what Khan calls “flipping the classroom” so that the theory, rules, explanations can be done as “homework” and the classroom time can be used to “practise”.

Applying this to EFL teaching

This particular TED talk, like many, was one that stayed with me and has had quite a profound effect on the way I teach. I began, as you probably know, doing online courses on WizIQ (scroll down to the bottom of the page to see recorded classes) earlier this year, and whilst the digital classroom is a marvellous thing, it is definitely, I would say, a space to experiment with language rather than a space to discuss theory too much. I began by doing lighthearted, fun conversation lessons and then added the support of a blog and this is where theflipping the classroom bit comes in. You will see, if you look at the lesson pages on this blog, that I now think of “home work” as more than I perhaps did in the past. For many of the lessons there are activities to do in preparation “pre class work” and then there is “follow up work” to do later, which often involves sharing photos and writing or commenting on other students’ work etc. on noticeboards like this one. In this way the work learners do outside the classroom merges with the work they do inside it. Of course, not everyone does the preparation work, and that is their choice, but the ones who do are definitely at an advantage in the lesson and get a lot more out of the whole process (besides winning most of the quizzes too 🙂 )

Tracking it all

In the eltchat someone asked me how I track it, and in a way, I’m in the fortunate position of not having to track homework. Most of my students are adults or young adults who are motivated to come to the online course. In my normal face to face work I teach university students who are “tracked” by means of exams, but once again, the amount of homework they do is entirely up to them. Having said that it is very easy to see who has done the pre class work, because they can contribute the most and are generally more relaxed and confident in class. The follow up project work is easy to see as well, because it is posted online, such as the examples on the noticeboard above.

Not only in a digital world

This way of flipping the classroom has filtered into my face to face work as well, though, where we integrate follow up work into class, in a sort of spiral approach. In the summer course I was doing in Bolzano recently with a group of B1-B2 level university students who need to pass a B2 entrance exam to study at the university, we also had a class blog and many of the posts on the Me and My Country Noticeboard came from them. Most of the work we did was face to face, but I took the work they did online and commented on it with a self correction code (Using the programme Markin. One of my favourites), and I posted this document for learners to work on (again at home) and we then looked at their ideas together in class. To see this document follow this link and look at lesson One. Then click on the link: Your Introductions and you will see the document that marking produced.

These students particularly appreciated the chance to prepare in advance for lessons by reading grammar rules and studying vocabulary etc. (This was easy to do as we were using The English File Intermediate Coursebook which provides very useful preparation work for students.) The day after the eltchat, in fact, I was monitoring my learners’ work in class and it struck me again quite forcibly that we had a lot more time, in this way, for micro teaching slots to concentrate on particular problems that they were having, putting the language into practice, rather than clarifying new language points. One example of this is that I noticed quite a few learners having trouble with the idea that “have” can be a lexical verb, and they couldn’t put it into an utterance like:

If I had had more time…..

Fortunately we had enough time to stop and focus on this, looking at how “have can be a lexical verb and also an auxiliary. This was not something that I had even considered might cause problems but the learners were having a lot of difficulty. Flipping the classroom, then, gives us the time to be even more learner-centred, seeing what happens when learners experiment and helping them to understand how to say and write the things they want to.

It goes without saying, of course, that the activities they do both for preparation and follow up activities should be relevant to their needs, and an integral part of the whole learning process, and there are so man ways of doing this. I’m looking forward to exploring more.

Lose yourself in a good book
Lose yourself in a good book


If you would like to see more of the things we said on this subject I can recommend Sandy Millin‘s excellent summary. (Follow the link above). So, happy home work :-).